As COVID-hit China reopens to the world, countries put up travel barriers
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By Brenda Goh and Xinghui Kok
SHANGHAI/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – With China just days away from dropping border controls that have effectively sealed it off from the rest of the world for three years, countries are lining up to impose restrictions on travelers from China to quell the furious contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
Beginning Sunday, January 8, China will drop quarantine requirements for inbound travelers, the latest dismantling of its “zero-COVID” regime that began last month after historic protests against a stifling series of mass lockdowns.
But the abrupt changes have exposed many of China’s 1.4 billion people to the virus for the first time, sparking a wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying pharmacy shelves of medicines and sparking international concern.
Greece, Germany and Sweden joined more than a dozen countries on Thursday in demanding COVID testing from Chinese travelers, as the World Health Organization said China’s official virus data was underreporting the true extent of its outbreak.
Chinese officials and state media have struck a defiant tone, defending the handling of the outbreak, downplaying the seriousness of the surge and denouncing overseas travel requirements for its residents.
“No matter how China chooses to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic, some Western media and some Western politicians will never be satisfied,” the state-run Global Times wrote in an editorial late Thursday.
The aviation industry, which has been hit by years of pandemic restrictions, is also critical of decisions to impose tests on travelers from China. China will continue to require pre-departure testing for inbound travelers after Jan. 8.
Some Chinese citizens think the reopening was too hasty.
“They should have taken a number of measures before opening, like giving advice on what precautions people of a certain age should be taking… and at least making sure pharmacies were stocked,” a 70-year-old man said of his last name , as Zhao told Reuters in Shanghai.
“By not doing that, it got very messy.”
China reported five new mainland COVID deaths Thursday, bringing the official virus death toll to 5,264, one of the lowest in the world.
But that contrasts with the situation on the ground, where funeral homes and crematoria are overcrowded and some hospitals are overflowing with elderly patients on ventilators.
International health experts believe Beijing’s limited definition of COVID deaths does not reflect the true number, which could rise to more than a million deaths this year.
SOUTHEAST ASIA OPEN
With the big Lunar New Year holiday later this month, the mainland will also open the border with its Hong Kong SAR for the first time in three years on Sunday.
Ferry services between the city and the Macau gambling hub will resume on the same day.
Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways said Thursday it would more than double flights to mainland China. Flights to and from China remain at a tiny fraction of pre-COVID levels.
The WHO has warned that the holiday, which begins on January 21 and typically sees the world’s largest migration of people, as people head home from the cities to see families in the countryside without higher vaccination rates and other precautions could trigger another wave of infection.
Authorities expect 2.1 billion passenger trips by road, rail, sea and air during the holiday, double the 1.05 billion recorded in the same period last year.
The Department for Transport has urged people to exercise caution to minimize the risk of infection for elderly relatives, pregnant women and infants.
One region that could be a big beneficiary of China’s opening up is Southeast Asia, which has stayed away from demanding COVID testing by Chinese visitors.
Aside from plane sewage testing by Malaysia and Thailand for the virus, the region’s 11 nations will treat Chinese travelers like everyone else.
According to a survey released by ITB China in December, 76% of Chinese travel agencies ranked Southeast Asia as a top destination when outbound travel resumed.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Bernard Orr and Liz Lee in Beijing, Farah Master in Hong Kong and Xinghui Kok in Singapore; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Robert Birsel)